Behind the Schedule, Part I (7/22/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

A few weeks ago, we examined the conference effect at a macro level in the NBA. We concluded that while the West has traditionally been the more powerful conference, the regular season advantage of playing in the East is only a bit above one win in a season. Over the next few weeks, we will take a deep dive into the schedule at a micro level. Using the Atlanta Hawks as a case study, we will uncover the idiosyncrasies of the NBA schedule with the hopes of better calibrating expectations for a team heading into and throughout a regular season. This week, let's examine the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks team – winner of 60 games.

Schedule Overview

The 82 game NBA schedule is a long, complex journey that requires traversing the continent several times over. In 2014-2015, the Hawks successfully soared the mature wings of Coach Bud's offense through the treacheries of the season to the top of the Eastern Conference – amassing a 60-22 record. But this overall result doesn't tell the whole story. Putting their record under the microscope, we can learn about what it takes to reach such an impressive win total.

Rest is one of the lenses under which to view the schedule. Any typical regular season game will feature two teams coming off zero to three days' rest between games. The Hawks played 21 games on zero rest – also known as back-to-backs – 42 games with one day of rest, 14 games with two days, and five games with three or more days of rest including the season opener. From the other locker room's perspective, the Hawks played 16 games versus opponents coming off a back-to-back, 49 games versus opponents with one day of rest, ten games versus two days of rest, and seven games against opponents with three or more days of rest. The record of the Hawks in each of these scenarios is presented in the table below.

Putting together combinations of rest is an opportunity for competitive advantage – the team with less rest is in an inopportune position. We can break the Hawks record down into three categories based on these combinations – equal rest, Hawks with more rest, or their opponent with more rest. The Hawks were 38-15, 11-1, and 11-6, respectively, in these three scenarios. Anecdotally, there appear to be advantages built into the infrastructure of the schedule – look out for more on this in the future.

While rest is knowable as soon as the schedule is released, the random happenstance of the season also plays a major role in how the schedule impacts a team's record. The most obvious of these occurrences are player injuries. If the Hawks play a game without Paul Millsap, Al Horford, or Jeff Teague, they are seriously compromised. Catching a vulnerable opponent is a matter of timing, a fortunate blessing from the schedule. It is near impossible to predict when players will miss games before a season, but in retrospect, we can figure out how a team performed in the various scenarios of missed games.

I went through and tracked how many of the top eight rotation players (based on my judgment) for the Hawks and their opponents were out (for injury or otherwise) in each game. I was interested in the games where Atlanta and/or its opponent was at full strength - all top eight players playing. I don't yet have a way to quantify the degree of strength if a team is not at full strength - which team is stronger: the Hawks without Millsap or without Korver and Thabo Sefalosha? So, for now we will stick with full strength because it is undeniable. The table below presents the results of Hawks games where Atlanta was at full strength or the opponent was at full strength. It also shows the subset of games where both teams were at full strength. Note that the Both scenarios are included in each of the other two scenarios - a subset. For results I show the win-loss record of the Hawks and the Net Rating of the Hawks of games in each scenario. Net Rating is a measure of the overall efficiency of a team. Simply put, it is the points per 100 possesions scored (Offensive Rating) minus points per 100 possessions allowed (Defensive Rating). I used data from for this table.

The Hawks seem to have benefitted in 2014-15 from a bit of luck relative to their opponents, playing 35% (29/82) of their games at full strength, while facing only 24% (20/82) of opponents at full strength. With further research, I can establish benchmarks for comparisons sake to clarify whether Atlanta was truly lucky in terms of missed games or not. It is interesting to note the Hawks had a higher Net Rating in the subset of evenly matched games than in the aggregate at full strength (Full disclosure, the evenly matched games featured three of their ten largest victories of the season overall, each eclipsing a +23 Net Rating - beware the dangers of small sample sizes). In an era where teams are more inclined to rest healthy players, the timing of the schedule can make a significant impact on the strength of an opponent regardless of health, as we will see below. The next two sections will provide specific examples of games where the circumstances surrounding the schedule were major factors in the outcomes for the Hawks, for better or worse.

Unfortunate Losses

The story around this team looking back, especially given their playoff performance versus Cleveland, invokes the word “fluke.” Certainly a 60-win team benefits to a certain degree from some good fortune. What people fail to consider, however, is even in a 60-win season there is the potential for unfortunate losses. The Hawks fell victim to several avoidable losses that season as a matter of unfortunate timing, leaving even more wins on the board.

March 7, 2015 @ Philadelphia (L 84-92) – the Hawks were coming off two huge wins at home over Houston and Cleveland heading into a back-to-back in Philadelphia. In a vacuum, the Hawks would have a small chance of losing to the lowly 76ers, but given the lack of rest and the success Atlanta had already to that point in the season, the Hawks opted to sit three starters – Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and DeMarre Carroll. Add in that Philadelphia was also on the second half of a back-to-back and strapped for talent after trading Michael Carter-Williams, a full strength Hawks team would have likely won this game. Add an extra day or two of rest and maybe they play this game with a full roster.

March 31, 2015 @ Detroit (L 95-105) – on the last leg of four games in five nights following a home win over Milwaukee the night before, Atlanta was under a rest disadvantage compounded with the absence of key backups Dennis Schroder and Mike Scott. The poor shooting effort – three percent below season average true-shooting percentage and six percent below average three-point percentage – indicates tired legs. An additional wrinkle on the Detroit side made for even more unfortunate circumstances. Detroit was in the midst of a hot streak, hitting their stride with Greg Monroe sidelined with an injury – a hot streak that revealed the path to success for Detroit who shed Monroe the following offseason and made the playoffs this past season. Atlanta won each of the three previous matchups that year with Monroe in the lineup, so his absence was not trivial, in an addition by subtraction manner.

April 12, 2015 @ Washington (L 99-108) – having already sown up the top seed in the East playoffs, Atlanta was hardly motivated to compete in the last few games of the regular season. As such, they sat their entire starting lineup plus Thabo Sefalosha. They competed well with a depleted roster but they essentially forfeited this game before it began due to their success up to that point in the season. This behavior is commonplace among elite teams down the stretch and must be considered when projecting records before a season starts.

Opportunistic Victories

Of course, the Hawks did in fact benefit fortuitously from the schedule to bolster their win total. Not to question the legitimacy of any of their wins, it can't be understated how hard it is to win one game in the NBA, but the Hawks certainly received a handful of breaks from the timing of the schedule. A particularly advantageous stretch presented itself in late February:

February 25, 2015 vs Dallas (W 104-87) – it is hard to imagine the Dallas Mavericks coming into this game with any more disadvantages. On the road, the second game in as many nights and their fifth in seven nights, and only 11 players available due to a rash of injuries, Dallas was a very vulnerable target. What would be a formidable opponent under neutral circumstances became a relatively easy win for the Hawks, coming off two days' rest without a major injury to boot.

February 28, 2015 @ Miami (W 93-91) – despite playing a back-to-back on the road as part of three games in four nights, while also without Teague, Carroll, or Horford, the Hawks managed to pull out a victory. Miami had been without Chris Bosh since the All-Star break with his blood clot and was also without Josh McRoberts for this tilt. A healthy Miami team perhaps inspires Atlanta to play its horses, but I believe the rest factor may have been the largest contributor to the decision to sit those starters, independent of the health of Miami.

March 3, 2015 vs Houston (W 104-96) – heading into the game knowing neither Dwight Howard nor Clint Capela would be available, Atlanta received an enormous stroke of luck in the form of a one-game suspension of James Harden for his groin kick in the previous game. Without its two stars, Houston was in a precarious position to compete against a formidable opponent like Atlanta. This is the type of fortune required to win 60 games.

Now that we've established a bit of understanding about the circumstances of the schedule that can impact wins and losses within a season, we can extend the analysis across seasons to help explain how teams' records change from year to year. Next week we will continue with the Atlanta Hawks to see how we can use the schedule to explain how they went from 60 wins in 14-15 to 48 wins in the most recent 15-16 season.